Wildlife photography is no easy task. Gross understatement, right? You don’t even have to go on an expedition to a strange and exotic land to realize the challenges present in wildlife photography; you can get a small taste of it at your local zoo or in your own back yard.
Photographing animals — wildlife specifically — thrusts you into a situation where you’re suddenly in the animals’ world, you play by their rules. They don’t behave like you want them to, you can’t communicate with them the way you would a human model, and there are times when they may express their annoyance with your presence in an aggressive manner. But if all goes well, you will emerge with your limbs intact and come away with shots that you and everyone else who sees them will treasure.
And how, exactly, might one go about accomplishing this? Seeing as how wildlife photography necessarily means you’re out in the elements, things can be wildly unpredictable, which means you’re going to have to adapt with the conditions. A step-by-step outline, therefore, will be of little use here. Instead, let’s take a look at a few general guidelines that, in conjunction with some good old fashioned common sense, will help you get the shots you want.
- Too Much Depth of Field. The elements of a good portrait are the same whether your subject is an animal or a person. So, when photographing wildlife, be sure to keep the focus on your subject by shooting at a wide aperture. A smaller aperture — meaning more depth of field — brings more of the background into focus and distracts from the animals who should be the main attraction of your portrait.
- Too Much Atmosphere. If you are attempting to capture the essence of an animal’s personality, it may not be wise to include too much of the surrounding environment in your shots. It’s a powerful urge to include more foreground, more trees, more sky; resist the temptation. That doesn’t mean the landscape is unimportant, however. An animal’s habitat matters. The idea is to minimize your compositional elements to only those things that are going to translate into a strong, easily describable photo. If it takes multiple sentences to describe and explain what the photograph is about, then you’ve probably overdone it. The best shots speak for themselves.
- Shooting at Your Eye Level. One of the reasons we’re so drawn to wildlife photography is that it allows us some degree of access to a world that holds quite a bit of intrigue and mystery for humans. So, if you’re out photographing this “other” world, don’t shoot everything at your eye level. Maximize the experience by shooting at your subjects’ eye level — as much as possible, anyway. There will always be exceptions. Like giraffes. But make an effort; get down low, go up high. The photographs you make will be much more compelling.
- Impatience/Bad Timing. You’re not shooting rocks. The animals that you are so captivated by will probably be moving; flapping their wings, shaking away fleas, chasing down something to eat. Given this level of unpredictability, you have to be ready to grab the shot at any moment. The thing is, you’re not going to get a perfect shot every time. In fact, out of hundreds of shots taken in one setting, only a few will be keepers. But since you’re (presumably) using a digital camera, just keep shooting. Becoming impatient will lead to mediocre photos and prevent you from learning the habits of your subject.
- Neglecting to “Work” the Subject. Never be content with the first shot you take. If circumstances permit, shoot your subject from a variety of angles and experiment with different camera settings. Even if it turns out that one photo isn’t “better” than the next, you’ve now created a reasonably satisfying study of your subject and have given yourself options in terms of what shots you might want to display.
- Disregarding the Light. Lighting always matters in photography, no matter the genre. If you can help it, don’t embark on your wildlife photography quest during the middle of the day when the light is harshest. If you want the best results, plan to shoot very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Cloudy days also present a wonderful opportunity, as the relatively uniform lighting and low contrast can make for some magical photos.
- Awkward Crops. When it comes to how you crop your photos, the same guidelines that apply to human subjects should apply to animal subjects: leave a little breathing room and don’t crop at the joints. With animals, though, you have to extend this concept to their tails and ears. Either include them in the shot or don’t. Cropping out half a tail or the top parts of ears just looks awkward.
- The Intrusive Human. Remember the part about walking away unscathed? The best way to achieve that is by showing your animal pals some common courtesy. Get close, but not intrusively close; don’t interrupt whatever activity they may currently be engaged in; don’t chase them. Respect the animals and their environment and odds are you will be just fine.
When it comes to wildlife photography, the subjects can be elusive and erratic; the photographic pursuit of these creatures is one of many factors that contribute to the appeal of wildlife photography, and the resulting images can be truly astounding. But wherever your pursuits take you — whether it’s your backyard or the African savanna — make sure your good sense and your code of ethics go along with you. The well-being of all animals and people involved takes priority. The wildlife photographer’s ultimate goal is more profound than simply showing off their work; it is also about educating and creating interest and conveying a sense of respect for nature. Being good at it and being smart about it shouldn’t be mutually exclusive ideas.